For thousands of years civilizations other than our own have thrived without pollution.  

In these cultures the concept of waste  — or “trash” as we like to call it– did not exist. These highly evolved cultures, were essentially pollution free: no waste, no trash… no pollution!  Their way of lives were in deep synchrony with the cycles of life around them. Indeed, some of these ancient civilizations, the Aztecs, the Iroquois, the Majapait, have vanished almost without any trace– their cities and fields, their pots and plates, all easily swallowed up by the Earth.  We have much to learn from such highly evolved cultures.

In one of the more profound periods of my life, I was stranded in the remote Northern Philippines in the land of the Igorot people. The Igorots, one of the few unconquered indigenous peoples in Asia, have over the centuries fiercely maintained a remarkable culture and profoundly integrated way of living. At a point of my life where love, career and direction were all falling apart, I was taken in by the Igorots and made their verdant, remote land my home for five years.  While living in one of their small mountain side villages, I learned their Kankanaey language as a way to integrate and heal. It proved fascinating to learn new words and concepts from a culture so different than my own.

However, it was even more fascinating to learn what words and concepts they did not have.

Backpacks hand made from rainforest rattan in the ancestral traditions of Barlig and Sagada, Coordilleras, Philippines.

In the Igorot language there is no word for ‘trash’.  In their world-view, there is no concept of something ‘useless’ or  ‘disposable’. It was very hard for me to grasp at first– the concept of waste is so ingrained in my own world view.  Yet, in the Igorot civilization, literally everything has its use, and once it’s purpose is complete, another use is waiting for it. Everything from food containers, snack packaging, backpacks, tools and houses were made from locally sourced, organic resources. Once their use was complete, all objects, all consumption could be reused locally and personally in some new way:  They could be fixed, re-purposed, composted, fed to the pigs, or reused in some other way. The concept of ‘worthless’ and ‘waste’ simply did not exist in their world view. Everything had a next life cycle built in.

For thousands of years civilizations other than our own have thrived without pollution. Can we?

As I continued to learn the language, I also discovered that they had words that were missing in my language!  The most striking was the word ‘Ayyew‘.  It became clear to me that this was an important Igorot virtue, a word used to describe the attribution of value to the tighter cycling of an object.  The closest we have in English is ‘thriftiness’– but its emphasis on saving money, and slightly derogatory connotation mean it is not the same.  Ayyew, is entirely positive and exults and praises the maximizing cycles of utility.  For example, one could simply throw one’s vegetable food waste into the garden to help the plants grow– or more Ayyew, would be to give it to the pigs to eat– thus fattening the pigs and resulting later in richer manure for the garden. This has lead to the maximizing and syncing of the cycles of life being a top priority and focus in their culture and communities.

Tags made with Love

Igorot women show their work weaving Coke bottle labels. Behind, a mat woven from straws and a lamp made from bottles.

With the Ayyew virtue, firmly entrenched in Igorot culture, it is no wonder that the entire region was a hot-bed of recycling innovation!   The miners in the mountains were famous for weaving intricate backpacks from the long ropes of peeled and discarded dynamite cord. The women in my village were well known for their work transforming plastic sachets and straws into all sorts of creations: from clutch bags, to mats to purses to fulfil orders around the world.  Meanwhile, the youth were among the very first to start ecobricking in the Philippines. Their school projects, in which tons of plastic was repurposed, has gone on to inspire the spread of the ecobrick movement all over South East Asia.

The Igorots had a word to praise these innovative, hard-working, recyclers.  I was always hearing the word ‘nagaget’ applied to them.  I came to learn that this was another virtue in Igorot culture.  The closest we have in the English language is ‘Industrious’ or ‘hard working’.  But where ‘Industrious’ is a virtue from the Industrial revolution, referring to working efficiently towards a goal, ‘Nagaget’ flows from the virtue of Ayyew. Thus: working hard to make better cycles.  For example someone who would plant vegetables on a barren piece of land was nagaget.  Having these virtues and concepts in the culture, meant the exultation of those who would take used plastics and weave them into a mat, the man who would turn bottles into a bench, or the high school student who would pack bottles full of plastic to make bricks– in each case making an object more useful through cycling.

Of course, I had lots of adapting to do.  My words, way of thinking, and the economy I grew up in, is founded on the Judeo Christian tradition.  In this paradigm there is the tendency towards a linear, black and white morality: sinful and sacred, good and bad.  This fundamentally biblical paradigm is linear rather than circular: one moves from birth, to death, then to heaven or hell.  Alas, when this linear way of judging the world around us guides a civilization, it results in an economy, a way of living, with dire consequences.

The words ‘trash’ and ‘waste’ are essentially linear judgments.  The act of “trashing” an object is essentially a condemnation. We are judging the object to be worthless and no longer fit for a place in our world.  Is there any difference between before piece of plastic that has served its purpose and after? The molecules and atoms are all still the same. The only thing that has changed is the word “trash” we’ve labeled it with. Yet this word, condemns the piece of plastic to a hellish fate as its whisked to a dumpsite somewhere.  These dumps and landfills, where trash is condemned, are remarkably similar to Hell. If you’ve ever walked through your city’s desolate, burning, noxious dumpsite, you will know exactly what I mean.

Even recycling in my country is essentially another version of trashing an object: we throw our plastic in a bin, for it to go somewhere else, to be dealt with somewhere else– the cycling is so broad and loose, so non-ayyew, that a large percentage of what is recycled ends up being dumped anyhow.

In our day and age, the concepts of ‘waste’, ‘trash’, ‘dump site’ are so ingrained in our way of life that we take them for granted. Consequently, pollution is one of the defining aspects of our civilization.  Forests fields, rivers and oceans are all choking on the ‘trash’ that we throw away.  Try as we might to recycle or innovate our way out of polluting, we have failed. In the decades since I learned in school to recycle, the dumpsites are bigger than ever, while disastrous amounts of plastic are making it into the ocean.   Despite all our technology, all our industry, the polluting, the waste and the trash are actually increasing.

But it needn’t be so.

I’ll never forget a visit to a remote Igorot village, nestled in a green verdant valley.  The small town, that is only accessible after a half hour hike down from the highway, is famous for its ancient stone solar calendar. Here, after centuries of Igorot habitation, the applied principles of Ayyew could be vividly seen and experienced.  A great waterfall cascaded down 10 or 20 meters, but after that, the intricate network of terraces and irrigation ensured the maximum useage and dispersion of the water to all the communities paddies, farms and plantations.  While waiting for my friend to finish her meeting in the village, I had a chance to look around me, I had a close look at the bushes and trees that were growing around the town. Everything was edible! All these plants, from avocados, to passion fruit were growing in verdant abundance around the town.  And then out of the town, the entire valley was rice terraces, fruit trees and more.

“Put only what you can consume in your plate. Don’t leave even a single grain of rice in your plate if possible. Why? This is ayyew as a show of respect to the cycles– to the animals, farmers and fields, enabling you to be able to eat.”  –Banayan Bakisan

It was literally a heaven on earth.  The entire community and culture were a full expression of nagaget.  Everywhere, cycles of utility had been intensified, amplified and synced so that the village was living in full thriving abundance.  Unlike the separation between food production and living in my land (often food travels thousands of kilometres to get to one’s plate), here food and living were intimately meshed.  Unlike the subjugation of a single species to a single track of land (as people in my country grow food) the village was an orchestra of varied species living in harmony. The stone calendar, on which the sunrise of the equinoxes would fall every year, and cultural ceremonies were based, was a culminating testament to how synced and harmonized their culture was to the cycles of life around them.

A glance at the highly evolved civilizations around us in time, such as that of the Igorots, shows us that solving the pollution crisis, has little to do with technology and way more to do with our way of looking at the world.

There’s no need to wait for the latest eco-innovation.  Co-creating a thriving, harmonious world is as simple, and as momentous, as loosing some words, and learning some new ones.




“Our ancestral rice farming cycle emphasizes ayyew.    Since the Igorot land is basically mountainous, flat lands are rare thus they were able to create beautiful rice terraces to maximize use of idle lands.  After the harvest, the rice terraces are converted to a garden which will be planted with legumes and camote.  Further, gardens are planted with different crops – intercropping. Usually, corn is planted earlier, after which other legumes as beans follow when the corns start to sprout then the camotes are next. The corns and the legumes will be harvested first. The camote (sweet potato) will only be harvested after a few months. Other plants will also be intercropped yet. It is not surprising to find soya beans or any other longer living plants at the edges of each garden. The practice of ayyew – time, effort, land – greatly enriched the land by steadily tightening, syncing and amplifying the land’s ecological cycles.”  – Irene Bakisan